Thursday, January 21, 2010
Southern By The Grace of God
My mother always noted that I was born in New Hampshire, and that for the first two years of my life, my home was in a hamlet dreadfully named Gonic, where my father was the sparsely rewarded minister of the Baptist Church. It always annoyed me to know that I was born in their worst years, as if I had tumbled out of her womb with an IOU slip pinned to my big toe. A boy likes to know that he brought bounty with him, good luck, or prosperity, but I just brought rhythm. Born drumming, she still says.
Those were the meager years of their lives, even worse than when Dad was a circuit rider in Maine, dividing his sermons between three churches in the rocky farmland far from any semblance of coastal romance. Before God Almighty moved our family to Rhode Island, Dad preached to calloused-handed farmers and laborers who tithed with bushels of corn or apples, or with their skills, perhaps fixing the parsonage's eternally running toilet, or unloading a cord of firewood.
My mother relishes those days of depending on God's provision, likening their time in the Granite State to the prophet Elijah's stint in the wilderness, as if we were eating raven flesh and locusts instead of Cream of Wheat. She possesses the admirable trait of being non-materialistic, and is thusly warmed by thoughts of waiting on God Almighty to prove Himself in the days of simple needs.
For years, she has repeated stories of His mercy in those days of waiting on Him. One morning, she says, she and my father were singing His praises when a twenty dollar bill appeared, hidden within their hymnal's pages for who knows how long, until just the right moment.
Another time, knowing a fierce Maine winter was approaching, my mother privately prayed for a warm coat. Soon, a parishioner turned up with a bolt of wool, which someone else sewed into the sorely needed garment.
My mother glories in those days of high snow and low dough.
I have no such sentiments about New Hampshire or the North.
Not long ago, when we had a rare conversation, she said "You've lost yaw New England accent". This was music to my ears, because I like to pretend that I never talked like a Yankee. I still cling to one mispronunciation that my Southern born woman teases me for using- "aftawoods", a single clue to my Northern raising.
You see, my body may have been born in New Hampshire, but my soul was born in South Carolina. I'm sure of it. My mother used to tell me how she and Dad and I drove from New England to South Carolina. Dad had been invited to preach at a church in the low country, whose congregation needed a shepherd. I can't remember if an invitation to take the job followed the audition, but we went instead to Rhode Island, where he and Mom lived until his Alzheimer's disease led them to Connecticut, but that's another story.
My siblings were left with their maternal grandmother in Cranston, Rhode Island, but my parents chose to bring their little 18 month old son on their pilgrimage. I was given the entire back seat of their old 49 Ford, with, naturally, no seat belts, restraints, or infant seat. As my parents sat in the front, probably discussing their uncertain future, I quietly and methodically threw every last toy I owned out the window, watching them disappear behind us on a hot Carolina highway. In those rare conversations with my mother, I'm told I was an expensive child.
Somewhere in South Carolina, Dad pulled the car into a rest area, and let it cool under the hickory tree which sheltered a lone picnic table. As they unpacked their basket and blanket, an old black man and his daughter ambled up to the car. Before my mother could spread her tablecloth across the table, the man's daughter staked her claim to it by laying her large torso across it. Thus, my mother invited the two to partake of our simple meal.
There's not much to the story, although it reminds me of my parents' high regard for "negroes", as Mom called them. She loved this story because, in the end, the old man took me in his arms and held me for the duration of their lunch. She said he was "wonduhful".
And that's where my story, or whatever it is, begins. It has to start someplace, and New Hampshire has never worked for me, as the Granite State has no ties to the moaning melodies and sensual, shuffling rhythms that I can't shake. The blues record spinning at 33 and a third in my soul could never be titled "New Hampshire Blues".
Who was that old man, that son of slaves, with his sweet smile and low hum? I wonder if he secretly made some sign on my brow, or spoke some ancient word into my ear, and perhaps sang some old gospel melody as he held on to me. Whatever the case, I always knew that I was a Southern man with a bluesman's heart, long before I finally packed up and moved to Dixieland. My name is Philip, and I'm from South Carolina.